Scientists are often though of as dull, boring and monotonous nerds, right? But that could not be more wrong as I hope I am showing you with this feature on my blog. My next super scientist role model is showing you that scientists can also be incredibly creative! Now – I’m not talking about imagining up some massive experiment in the lab. I’m talking outside of the lab as an artist. Sciart is an area that holds so much variety and where everyone can play to their strong suits, and an area I wish to explore in the near future. But I’m always on the look out for inspiration and when I came across my next Scientist in the Spotlight, I knew that she was a perfect example of how science and art meet. So, I would like to introduce you to Jen M.
Jen was born and raised in Hong Kong, but moved to Canada on her own when she was 16 to pursue her studies. Her undergrad was in Engineering Science with a specialisation in Biomedical Engineering. Now, she is at the University of Toronto doing a PhD in Stem Cell Bioengineering – in the city where stem cells were discovered!
But all of this and she is still an incredible artist AND a scientist! But I’ve heard that you should probably not take her on in an eating contest! Jen LOVES food and can eat a lot for her size, There is, also, a rumour in her lab that she can out eat her food-devouring-monster of a lab mate Charles. I sense a challenge coming along guys! 😛
So you’re a cover star! Tell us more about getting your artwork on the cover of a science journal?
Jen: It was an amazing opportunity that I can’t thank my colleague and friend Shreya enough for! ❤ Shreya’s paper was accepted by Nature Methods and she received an invitation to submit images for the cover competition. So, I worked with her and another author John to come up with a few ideas. We incorporated their key scientific findings on how immune cells can sense their environment and let it guide their growth and fate, as well as Sherya’s love for nature and plants in the final concept.
We were crunched for time so I chose a style that I’m quite comfortable with – monotone pointillism and line art. My boyfriend who is an architect/designer also provided valuable feedback as I was developing the graphics. We were all ecstatic to find out that our illustration was selected for the cover!
I never had any of my artwork published before this, let alone as the cover of a prestigious journal! I almost couldn’t believe it…and felt so honoured when my supervisor asked me to sign his copy!
What is it about mixing science and art that you love?
Jen: The process of making sciart is immensely fun and fulfilling! From researching about the scientific concept or topic, distilling the essence and consolidating a key message, to brainstorming and experimenting with different artistic styles to best convey the message, and finally putting the graphics together – every step is a learning opportunity and a puzzle to be solved. It’s actually a lot like the approach we use every day in our scientific research. It only gets better when I get to collaborate with other scientist and artists as well, learning about their fascinating work and bouncing creative ideas off of each other. It’s such a pleasure to engage with people who are genuinely interested in my artwork and the concepts behind them. I really appreciate the opportunity to share what I’m passionate about with my audience. Through sciart and social media. I’ve connected with other scientists and educators, some of whom I collaborate with, as well as students, who are interested in STEM careers looking for advice, inspiration and motivation. I really really treasure there interactions, which in turn become my inspiration.
And why is sciart important to you?
Jen: It is my creative outlet, a learning experience, a way to connect with others and communicate science! I also want to demonstrate that science and art are not mutually exclusive! I used to think I could only pick one, and gave up art a few times to focus on my STEM career, But the truth is, whether you combine them or enjoy them separately, you can have your cake and eat it too! Know that there is a place for sciart in this world, to which you can contribute however you want: make it your life’s work, or a fun hobby, or be an engaged audience!
As for sciart as a form of scicomm, there are many ways to do it. I’m still figuring out the most effective approach that also suits me. I do believe that art is a great way to express and share ideas, as well as intrigue our audience and capture their attention. These are all extremely valuable for scicomm, especially in this information era when there is so much competing stimuli.
I’ve also noticed an increasing number of science outreach channels, social media accounts, blogs, etc. that provide high quality scicomm materials. However, these efforts may not reach or appeal to people who aren’t looking to engage in science. By combining science and art, I am broadening my audience: some enjoy art, some enjoy science, and some do both! That means my sciart also reaches those who don’t typically seek out for, and therefore, have limited exposure to scientific info. Science is no less relevant to these people, and I’m hoping to make it more accessible to them. This also why my Instagram feed features a mix of sciart and other artwork–practicing different artistic styles not only helps me develop my skills, it also attract followers who are into art and design.
So, let’s talk a bit more about your science. What does your research involve and what do you do in the lab?
Jen: I like to refer to my research as ‘Counting Hope’. I’m developing a platform to count rare blood stem cell in samples – think bone marrow or umbilical cord blood – that can be transplanted to replenish a patient’s blood system, and I do this by examining the gene expression at a single cell level.
A typical day might involve cell culture, microfluidics, fluorescent imaging and data analysis. But most recently I’ve been running some of the last experiments for my PhD project and developing a data analysis pipeline as I want to finish my PhD before next summer. Some days you will find me running from bench to bench all day, while others I’m coding away at my desk. I also sometimes paint in the lab because there is better lighting!
What’s the most valuable thing you have learnt during your PhD?
Jen: Whoa, this is a tough one because there are so many! But if I have to choose one, it would be: ‘Don’t compete! Collaborate instead!’
There really is no use in beating yourself up by comparing yourself with other’s sucesses. I used to be so afriad of failure and envious of all the crazy smart people around me – that’s what you get when you work with world class researchers! It’s paralysing and prevented me from trying anything. Once I started to see others as inspiration and potential collaborators, I opened doors for myself instead of digging a hole full of mental health issues. I replaces the negativity with the desire to suround myself with the most brilliant and the most talented. Don’t be afriad to ask for a helping hand when you need it, learn from the experienced and return the favour or pay it forward whenever you can. It will get you much further and you will fell good while doing it!
Outside the lab, what do you spend your spare time doing, or is that obvious?
Jen: Spare time is hard to come by these days! But as you might have guessed, I spend most of my free time with my art supplies. I’ve taken up drawing and lettering as a hobby in the past year and share my work on Instagram (@ItsLikePudding). The lettering community is super supportive and I’ve met so many cool people there! I actually just started a new sciart project, the lettering challenge STEAMotype (@STEAMotype), with a few calligraphers (@calligracrafty, @karenscribbles, and @weilis.whimsies) with various science backgrounds. After months of preparation, it’s finally launched this month!
STEAMotype not only provides our participants with some interesting prompts to letter, but teaches us something about a STEM (or STEAM, to include Arts in STEM) topic every week. My hope is that through this challenge, more people would benefit from all the things I love about sciart, and together we can reach an even wider audience! We are also looking to partner with experts in all fields of STEM to make sure we have the most updated and fun info to share. So please contact us if you would like to be a guest host and talk about your field!
When I get a chance I also love outdoor activities (hiking, camping, canyoneering, scuba diving, etc.) and travelling, paired with photography when possible. I’m always looking to share unique experiences with my loved ones. Some travel photos I share here are from hiking in North Vancouver and the Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park, and an iceberg boat tour in Twillingate, Newfoundland. Since I’ve always lived in big cities, I enjoy destinations that are more secluded and unplugged. Some of the coolest trips I’ve been on are a 5-day sailing/island-hopping/camping trip in Palawan, Philippines, and at the Burning Man festival.
Oh and food! I eat and enjoy almost everything, some of which my friends deem disgusting, e.g. durian, nato, and surströmming. I also love cooking, especially to recreate my favourite dishes that only my mom and grandma make.
What is next for you after your PhD?
Jen: I’m hoping to stay in research for a few more years, either as a post-doc or in industry, as I further develop my sciart/scicomm portfolio on the side. Maybe one day when I’m done with the bench, I will switch to scicomm full-time 🙂
And last question, where in the world should I visit next?
Jen: Hands down, the Burning Man festival at Black Rock City. I always have trouble describing it, so here’s what it says on their website: ‘Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. In this crucible of creativity, all are welcome’. And it’s exactly that, word for word. I went in 2015 and it was the most intensely beautiful and liberating experience I’ve ever had! I can still feel emotions run through my body whenever I think about it. It changed my perception about myself and my relationship with others. I truly believe that most people would benefit from a visit to this magical place in the middle of nowhere. If nothing else (which I highly doubt!), you will come back with the coolest stories to tell!
Thanks to Jen for getting involved with Spotlight September. It’s been great to get to know the girl behind the art! If you want some lettering or sciart inspiration follow Jen over on Instagram, or join the STEAMotype challenge here too.
S P O T L I G H T S E P T E M B E R is in full swing! Make sure to check back in every Monday and Friday this month for a new scientist’s story. PLUS I will be sprinkling these blog posts with a few #waybackwednesday and #throwbackthursday posts on my social media pages (see links below) to show you what my previous Scientist in the Spotlight scientists are getting up to now! AND at the end of the month I have another announcement to make! So there is LOTS going on across Soph talks science in September. Make sure you don’t miss out and subscribe to my mailing list at the top right of this page or follow me over on social media! Thank you all for your continued support. I am absolutely loving my science communication side hustle at the moment – especially as the last month has been the most successful EVER on my blog and I have so many new exciting collaborations and projects coming up! Not sure I’ve got time for this PhD malarky 😛